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Leading items and editorials

The changing perception of Linux. It has been interesting to watch, over the years, as the way Linux is seen outside the community has evolved. When LWN started publishing at the beginning of 1998, the few people who had actually heard of Linux dismissed it as a hobbyist's toy. Things are different now; it's worthwhile to look at just how different.

Those wondering if Linux is being taken seriously in the business world might well find their answer in the absurd vision of Sun CEO Scott McNealy in a penguin suit. A better example, however, may be found by looking at the treatment of IBM and its commitment to Linux. A year and a half ago, we could read things like this Gartner pronouncement:

But the Linux movement is fraught with potential hazards if companies such as IBM act too hastily. For example, the lack of standards, frequent releases, and variety of Linux distributions on Intel and various RISC implementations will increase the complexity of support. In addition, the earlier investment craze over Linux has died out, and most Linux-only companies are struggling financially.

Now fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago, and consider this interesting (but subscription-only) article in the Economist about Sam Palmisano taking the helm at IBM:

Mr. Palmisano was also involved with another of IBM's cunning strategic moves: its embrace of Linux, the free, open-source operating system that is maintained by a vast collective of programmers who collaborate online.

That which was once "fraught with potential hazards" is now seen as a "cunning strategic move." Linux is now seen, from far away, as a smart business strategy for a large, established technology company. The world has changed.

Something interesting has happened over the last six months or so. Many people clearly expected Linux to disappear with much of the dotcom economy; Microsoft explicitly compared Linux with dotcom business models. Many of the dotcoms are long gone at this point, and people are beginning to notice that Linux is not only still around, but it has gotten stronger. Linux (and free software in general) were never just another dotcom fad of the month. They not only have great value to offer; they are also well insulated from the fortunes of any particular company that chooses to work with them. Free software is now taken seriously, but we still have only begun to see where it will go.

Sun wakes up. Many in the Linux community have wondered when Sun would figure out that Linux isn't just going to go away. The company seems to be opening its eyes at last; here's Sun's press release on its new Linux strategy. Interestingly, this announcement happened the week after LinuxWorld.

The points in the announcement are vague and interesting. The first of those is that Sun "will ship a full implementation of the Linux operating system." That looks very much as if Sun is getting into the distribution business. We asked Sun's PR people what company was up to, only to be told "we're not clarifying." We'll have to wait and see what really comes out.

A Sun distribution could be an interesting force in the market. Sun, of course, has recently lost a number of high-profile customers to Linux in a very public way. Perhaps the company feels that, if its customers are going to switch to Linux, maybe they will be inclined toward a distribution with the Sun brand. A path which makes it easy to stick with the same vendor and to integrate Linux and Solaris systems might help Sun retain a number of those customers.

It is a bit of a stretch to imagine Sun as a major Linux distributor, however. There are many established players in that market whose support of the system seems rather more wholehearted than Sun's.

Next, Sun will be expanding the Cobalt line of Linux appliances, and adding a set of "low-end general purpose Linux/x86-based systems." In other words, Sun is getting into the cheap, commodity Linux systems business that has proved so difficult for a number of other vendors. The Sun name should help, but it still is a hard business to be in. If Sun envisions extending its Linux support to its higher-end SPARC systems, however, it might get somewhere.

Finally, there is a vague promise to offer "key components" of Solaris to the Linux community. Once again, the company refused to tell us just what those components might be, or what sort of licensing would be used.

So we will have to wait and see what Sun really has in mind - it's mostly words at the moment, and vague words at that. Sun played a large part in the commercialization of Unix, and it may yet have a large role to play in the Linux world as well. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Dave Whitinger joins LWN.net. We are pleased to announce that Dave Whitinger, co-founder of Linux Today, has agreed to join the LWN staff. His official title is "Director of Business Development," but he will be handling a variety of tasks from arranging partnerships to posting content on the site. Dave brings a wide variety of talents and a lot of ideas to LWN.net; expect to see a great many improvements as he makes his presence felt.

Inside this LWN.net weekly edition:

  • Security: Multiple security problems with SNMP
  • Kernel: Preemptible kernel patch merged; ALSA to be merged; How synchronous should sync() be?
  • Distributions: Sun Linux?; The return of Halloween & DragonLinux.
  • Development: The jack Audio Connection Kit, Standalone ZODB 1.0, Aide 0.8 GNU FDL 1.2 draft, GNOME 1.4.1rc1, GSview 4.2, new Gimps, Gnopher 0.2.
  • Commerce: HP Issues Statement on Compaq Merger; E*TRADE Migrates to Linux; IBM launches low-end eServer.
  • Letters: Counting security updates; system auditing.
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

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February 14, 2002


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